WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a Pennsylvania public school wrongly suspended a cheerleader over a vulgar social media post.
The court voted 8-1 in favor of Brandi Levy, who was a 14-year-old high school freshman when she expressed her disappointment over not making the varsity cheerleading team on Snapchat with a string of curse words and a raised middle finger.
Levy was not in school when she made her post, but she was suspended from cheerleading for a year. In an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, the high court ruled that the suspension violated Levy’s First Amendment rights.
“(We do) not believe that the “special characteristics that give schools additional license to regulate student speech always disappear when a school regulates speech that takes place off campus. The school’s regulatory interests remain significant in some off-campus circumstances,” Breyer wrote in the ruling.
But the justices also declined to endorse a lower court decision that found that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech prohibited public schools from regulating off-campus speech.
The case involved the free speech rights of America’s roughly 50 million public school students. Many schools and educators have argued that their ability to curb bullying, threats, cheating and harassment – all frequently occurring online – should not be limited to school grounds.
The court pondered the competing issues of students having freedom of expression, especially political or religious views, and schools having the ability to prevent disruptions in the internet and social media era.
NewsNation spoke with legal expert Professor Frank LoMonte of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information Director about the case when justices initially heard oral arguments. He called the case of “generational importance.”
“And if you diminish the first amendment protections students enjoy in their off campus lives, you’re doing it for all off campus speech,” said LoMonte. “All off campus speech would become equally punishable as if it were being uttered inside a classroom on school time.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, representing Levy and her parents in the lawsuit against Mahanoy Area School District, argued that students need protection from censorship and monitoring of their beliefs.
Levy, now an 18-year-old college student studying accounting, had been a member of the high school’s junior varsity cheerleading squad and tried out near the end of her freshman year for the varsity team. She made her Snapchat post in May 2017, two days after an unsuccessful tryout. She was 14 at the time.
On a Saturday at a Cocoa Hut convenience store in Mahanoy City in Pennsylvania’s coal region, she posted a photo of her and a friend raising their middle fingers, adding a caption using the same curse word four times to voice her displeasure with cheerleading, softball, school and “everything.”
“If there’s anything that the first amendment exists for, it’s to allow us to criticize and express our dissatisfaction with government agencies,” said LoMonte.
Levy’s photo was visible for 24 hours on Snapchat, along with another post questioning a younger girl’s selection to the varsity squad. Some cheerleaders and students chafed at the posts and the controversy disrupted classes, according to court papers.
Read the full court opinion below